A Look at the Competition – All the Rest

This last of three posts about the competition is really a grab bag of near BMW competitors (like Lexus and Jaguar) and those that don’t even come close to any BMW (like the Fiat 500 and the MX-5 Miata). Even though it’s a bit of shot-gun blast of cars, they all compete for you hard earned dollars. Take the reviews in the intent that they are offered: Glimpses into cars that you may not get to drive, or may not choose to drive. But all the cars here save maybe one are worth the time to test. And they all do at least one thing well. Hold on for the rides!

Acura NSX: This quasi-competes (or will quasi-compete) with the i8, but to tell the truth, its base price is higher by more than the cost of a MINI. Sadly the line of drivers for track flogging was so long that my turn would have come up about a half hour after the track closed, so I only had the opportunity to drive on the street. Compared to the i8, it’s easier to get into and out of, and the forward visibility is noticeably improved over the offering from BMW. I spent some time talking to the person responsible for chassis dynamics, and he shared how much effort went into the forward sight lines. While it is a high-tech masterpiece like the i8, they used high strength steel for the A-pillars to make them as slender and graceful as possible.

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I drove the car from Quail Lodge to MRLS and back over the Laureles grade. Depending on traffic, this can be fun or a curse. Luckily, traffic was light, and I did get to push the car a bit. It is shockingly quick, shockingly stable, and shockingly good. The only downside is that like the i8, rearward visibility is pretty poor. The AWD nature was obvious when I goosed the go peddle  turning the car around to head back to Quail, with the pull from the front electric motor keeping the rear from stepping out. This car was a pre-production prototype, and was tight and well-built.

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Customers at this end of the price spectrum buy from emotion more than purely value or performance, but if were a hedge fund manager, I think my money would go to the NSX over the i8. Surprising, but true. Grade: A-

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Alfa Romeo 4c Spider: Last year I had the pleasure of driving the 4C hardtop. If I’d had the just shy of $70 grand in my pocket needed that day, one would be parked in my driveway right now. The ultimate automotive scalpel track-toy , it was the very first car I’d ever driven that inspired enough confidence for me to accelerate hard all the way through the Corkscrew. From the very top. But sadly, the Spider, while looking the same, wasn’t the car I’d remembered. While it looks like the same car, cutting the roof decoupled the front from the rear a bit more, no a lot more, than I’d expected. The hard top was all monolithic carbon-fiber goodness, but the Spider is like two siblings that are always together but never really get along; the front-end and the rear-end seemed to be fighting, with no-mans land somewhere underneath my thighs. While still shockingly fast and made of the very same sexy Italian curves, ultimately I found the car had lost it’s compelling nature. Yes, it’s much easier to get into and out of than the hardtop (as well as the i8), I think the Spider gives up too much in the name of open air driving. Grade: C

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Dodge Challenger Scat Pack Plum Crazy: What a hoot! No, it’s not a Hellcat. And that’s a good thing. Hellcats rule the armchair discussion, with bench-racers claiming all the checkered flags. And while the 707 HP is an amazing achievement for a warrantied drivetrain, they shred tires and are pretty much impossible to keep in a straight line. Or on the racing line at a track. The Scat Pack is a “mid-level” HP version of the 6.4 litre Hemi, sporting mearly 485 HP, but I think it’s the sweet spot for the Challenger/Charger packages. Capable of monster burn-outs if that’s what you want, it’s a much more manageable power. For those skeptics that say it’s just for mullet haired Southern men who are dreaming of the muscle cars of their youth, these cars are fast and capable. And really fun to drive to boot! The Plum Crazy is one of the 60’s throwback colors. This is one of the cars that really exceeded my expectations. And it’s not that expensive! The Scat-Pack Plum Crazy starts at just over $37 grand. (A bit more for the cool retro shaker hood.) For those that haven’t looked, that’s about the price of a lightly optioned X1. Maybe it’s not so crazy after all. Grade: A-

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Dodge Viper ACR: OMFG!!!!! I was either privileged or cursed to get some hot laps in this car at the hands of the factory driver. This is by far the most capable “street” car I’ve ever been in from any manufacturer, at any price. Gone are the days where Vipers were an unmanageable three-way between a V10 truck motor, a chassis from hell and a stone-age suspension. This car is setting records at track after track, and no tricks are needed here. This is raw power (interestingly, less than the Hellcats at “only” 660 HP), exceptional chassis/suspension and tires the size of the original Mini (the whole car, not it’s tiny tires) at every corner. All the fins and wings can create about three quarters of a ton of downforce, making cornering speeds unbelievable. I have never felt braking or cornering forces like in the ACR.

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Those that talk down about Vipers don’t know jack. This car is capable and amazing. If you pass one on a track, it’s the driver, not the car. In the hands of an expert, this is as close to unbeatable as any car has any right to be. While Vipers aren’t selling very well, it’s not because of what they are capable of. These cars have steadily improved since the initial release. If these appeal to you at all, and you are of the means to afford one, get one now before they go away. You will not regret it. Grade: A+++++++!

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Fiat 500 Abarth: What a fun little plaything! Yes, they are tiny. And yes, it feels like you sit on them rather than in them. (This is due to the classic Italian upright seating position and less than supportive seats.) But they are fun and more capable than they get credit for. With a very short wheelbase they never really take a set in turns and are only for those that enjoy lots of steering wheel action. After a few laps when I figured out how this little car likes to dance, it’s was more fun than I’d imagined it would be, as well as more capable. I had better lap times and higher top speeds in the Abarth than the Toybaru twins of the FR-S/BRZ. Really more of a MINI competitor than going against anything with a Roundel on it. Not for everyone but deserving of more respect than they currently get from drivers or the press. Grade: B

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Ford/Shelby GT-350R: As special thanks goes to Jason Camp of Ford for getting this one to our event. I thought I’d only see these in magazines or car shows and never expected to get behind the wheel of one. I’m lucky I did and it was one of the high points of the event. It is amazingly capable and very easy to drive very very fast. And everything you read about shifting this wonderful engine too soon is totally true. I kept shifting at about 7,2oo RPM, with more than a grand of usable tach left before redline. Yes, the race rubber makes a difference (technically they are street legal tires, but with the soft rubber and high cost, only the stupid rich would drive these commuting) but it’s the car that does it all. This is a very fast and capable car. I hate to admit it, but that night, I actually spent time configuring one on the Ford website. No, I didn’t buy one, but I’m trying to figure out how to do it. And Ford announced that for just shy of $1,000 more, you can get a rear seat put into next years R-model! “But Honey, it is NOT a stupid idea. There’s room for the kids!” Grade: A+

Infinity Q70: On paper, this one sounds good. A 5.6l V8 good for 420 HP should make a nice 4 door luxury sedan, but I didn’t like it at all. My family hauler, a 7 passenger Mazda CX-9, is a more engaging drive. Chassis seems more rigid too. Sad to say it, but Infinity needs to come a long way to get competitive in the $50k+ sport sedan market. I didn’t even take a photo. Grade: C

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Jaguar XF R-Sport: I love Jags. They are cross-shopped with BMW, Mercedes and Porsche, even though figuring out exactly which model they compete with isn’t always clear.  They’ve almost always had great lines and wonderful interiors. And I really respect what they are doing now with the F-Type. But this one didn’t do it for me. Yes, the blown 6 has either 340 or 380 HP delivered via either rear or all wheel drive good for just over 5 seconds to 60 MPH, but the car I drove had some driveline issues that really disappointed. At this price point, one shouldn’t feel like the driveline was winding up and snapping back. Sad for me to say, the last XF was one of my favorite stealthy luxury sport sedans. Not so any more. Grade: B-

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Jaguar F-Type S Convertible: Everything that disappointed in the XF was absent in the F-Type. Last year, the hardtop was a crowd favorite with it’s wonderful chassis and abundant power. I, like everyone else, really loved the car and it was one that I often returned to if none of the other cars on my list were available at that moment. The convertible is wonderful as well, and the number of engine and driveline combinations is very respectable. The only criticism I have is that the V8 can only be had with an automatic transmission, but to tell the truth, this is the trend among many manufacturers, BMW included. The fact that one can still get a manual with either 340 or 380 HP supercharged V6 earns more respect for the brand. Unlike the Alfa Spider, the F-Type Convertible is a connected car that looses no precision when compared to the hard top. Somewhat more sporty looking than the 6-Series, this is a car to watch, and if you are lucky, to drive. Grade: A-

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Lexus RC F: Last year I drove one of these and wasn’t too impressed. This year was entirely different. I’m not sure what’s different, because the cars are basically the same, but this year the RC F was one of the easiest cars to drive fast. Maybe it’s the torque-vectoring rear differential, maybe not, but going too hot into the corkscrew was easily corrected with just a tad more steering input, all without any complaints from the chassis or howling of the tires. I have to say I really hate the grills on the Lexuses (or is that Lexi?) but there is no denying that the car is fast and capable. And unlike other cars, like the ATS-V, the limits of this car are easily explored, even by the non-expert driver. If you can get over the front end, and don’t mind an automatic (no manual is offered), this car is worth comparing to an M4. Yes, the M4 is ultimately a faster car, but it takes more driver skill to get there. In the real world, many, if not most, drivers will be just as fast in the RC F. BMW purists may not like it, but it’s true. Grade: A-

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Mazda MX-5 (Miata): Always a favorite for it’s pure driving experience, the newest Miata is a very satisfying car. All I hear is people praising it’s purity of essense, that it’s the only car that really harkens back to the two-seat roadsters that were so ubiquitous after WWII. These were the cars that really introduced the US to driving for fun. I get it. But then again, I can’t believe that I’m the only person who thought that this car had too much cowel shake. I used to own a Fiat 124 Spyder, so I know what the experience is all about: Drop the top, and squirt around in a nimble, tossable plaything that does nothing but create smiles, lack of power be damned. But oddly, I wasn’t that happy with it. And it was the version that I’d get if I were to get one. The Club Sport with the Brembo brake package. This stickers at about $33k, and that’s a bit steep for what I think the car delivers. Oddly, you can still configure a 2015 Miata. Even though it’s a less capable car, I think I’d get the 2015 and pocket the $5k difference in price. The Miata doesn’t really compete with a Z4, but then again, it doesn’t start at almost $50k either. Grade: B

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Toybaru BRZ/FR-S: No, these cars aren’t identical, but close enough to cover in one post. They are inexpensive and seriously fun. Really, they tie into BMW roots almost more than the current crop of BMWs does. They have a great chassis, and not much power. This was the original recipe for the 2002, the original 3 series, as well as the venerable E30 M3. But times have changed, and power is easy to find now. That leaves these cars as somewhat a throwback to a lost time, where driver skill and cornering prowess are king, and raw horsepower wasn’t available in any package that could turn worth a damn. These cars are serious fun. But they fundamentally felt a bit lacking. Maybe it was the company that they were in: almost any two of the above cars summed to over 1,000 HP, but driving the twins left me wanting for more. Climbing the hill after turn five, there was no worry about sound and one could keep the gas pedal planted. But even floored, I found myself waiting for the speed to build, and turn 5 is one of the easier turns to carry speed through. But despite that, the chassis is wonderful, and the car practically dances with subtle pedal and steering inputs. It is precise in every way the Fiat 500 Abarth is not. An easy car to drive fast, and an excellent platform to use for skill improvement, they need at least 50 HP more to really get into the game. I sure hope that a power bump is coming for them, otherwise I can only recommend them to those willing to work with aftermarket tuners. But if one does buy one, make sure the get the upgraded tire and wheel options. That makes a huge difference in driving pleasure. Grade: B

In conclusion, there are tons of options out there that are capable and fast. Only the Mercedes-Benz products, and maybe the Lexus F models and Jags, compete with BMW in power, handling and understated elegance (OK, the AMG products aren’t really understated, and Audi wasn’t there). But if one is willing to look for other combinations than exactly what BMW is offering, there are many, many cars from which a serious performance driver can choose. It’s a very, very good time for automotive performance, no doubt about it.

My favorite moments? Almost crapping myself in the Viper ACR; the howl of the GT-350R; the amazing grunt of the CTS-V, driving a manual M2 on street and track as well as getting hot laps from a BMW factory driver; and the GT S AMG all were at the top of my list in wonderful automotive memories. And they will stay near the top for quite some time to come. GM gets the award for most improved (and the brand BMW should worry about the most, as surprising as that seems.)

A special thanks goes to all the manufacturers for bringing their hardware out for me, and the other members of Western Automotive Journalists, to sample, WAJ for organizing yet another wonderful event, and to Mazda for donating the track time at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca. Many of us love cars, fewer get to drive cars like these, and almost no one gets to drive cars like these at one of the worlds best road course circuits. Without the hard work and help of many, I wouldn’t have had such a wonderful experience to share with you all. The automotive gods were surely smiling my way.

 

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